Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 1, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

FCC DEREGULATION....Why haven't I commented on the upcoming FCC deregulation, you ask? Because I'm a coward, that's why.

See, the problem is that...crackle....buzz....um, can you still hear me out there?....pop....you're breaking up....gotta go....

Heh, heh, just kidding. See, the problem is that I'm not sure I'm actually opposed to deregulation. There, I said it.

Roughly speaking, here's where I stand: despite my liberal leanings, my conservative readers will be either surprised or amused (depending on temperament) to hear me say that I'm not especially in favor of government regulation of industry without a compelling reason. The smaller the regulation, the less compelling the reason has to be, of course, but in the case of the media the current regulatory regime is very intrusive indeed.

This regime is mostly a historical accident based on the scarcity of broadcast spectrum space in the 30s, and the argument for keeping it in place revolves around the idea that the media is different from other businesses. It's critical to democratic debate, it's at the center of the First Amendment, and normal antitrust laws aren't enough to ensure that it stays free and vibrant.

This makes me very nervous. Frankly, if there's any industry where I think the government ought to stay as far, far away as possible, it's the media. Hell, I'm not even a big fan of PBS or Voice of America. As businesses, media companies should be bound by normal antitrust rules, but as opinion leaders I really would prefer that the government stay out.

On a more practical level, I also have my doubts about the purported death of media diversity that deregulation would bring. Newspapers come one to a city these days, but that's been true for decades and has nothing to do with deregulation. Talk radio is mostly conservative, but that's got more to do with what people want to listen to than it does with ownership concentration. Cable TV obviously provides far more variety (both in channels and ownership) than the measly half dozen channels that even large cities were restricted to 30 years ago. And there's the internet.

I guess I'm just not convinced that the world is going to come to an end if media regulation is relaxed. What's more, when you clear through the thicket of the debate, an awful lot of it seems to end up focused on the evils of Clear Channel and the problems of Minot, North Dakota. That's good theater, I guess, but I'm not sure it's a good enough reason to keep our current regulations in place.

And now, you may fire when ready. Comments are open, but remember to keep it clean....

UPDATE: I probably ought to make clear that the only thing I'm commenting on here is ownership regulations on radio and TV stations, not telecom regulation in general, which I think is an entirely different subject.

Generally speaking, though, none of us would approve of ownership restrictions on newspapers, magazines, or internet news sources, so why radio and TV? Mainly because the airwaves are a public resource, so we demand that radio and TV serve the public interest in return for being granted space on the spectrum. My feeling, however, is that the "public interest" portion of broadcast schedules was never anything more than a joke, and allocating spectrum could be done via auction just like cell phone spectrum. Corporate ownership of major news outlets is really nothing new, and I can't help but wonder if we're all being a bit Chicken Little-ish about the bogeymen of Viacom, AOL, and News Corp.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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